Family Triangulation Part Five: Parallel Lines

In this series, I’ve briefly highlighted the dynamics in my paternal family, the manifestations of my grandmother’s mental issues and their effects on her children, and some of the effects on her grandchildren (previous entry).

In this entry, I finally look in the mirror.

Odd One Out

My sister and I were never on good terms. Her infancy was spent primarily around our paternal relatives, and she earned approval and affection by rejecting our mother, and catering to our father. My infancy, dominated by my mother and her family, led me to view my paternal family as frightening. My father’s rages and physical outbursts, very like his own father’s, were only part of it. The rest was the emotional confusion I experienced.

In retrospect, I can see that my sister mimicked my father’s behavior around his family. She was able to form triangles as he did, with his mother and siblings, where two of any three “points” in the triangle would operate for their own emotional fulfillment against the third.

Overlapping Triangles

Overlapping Triangles (Image by CE Miller)

Accustomed to nurturing and encouragement from my mother and her family, I reacted with fear to those triangles. I was the “odd one out” if I was in any triangle at all.  A compliment such as “I hear you did well in school” would be followed in my dad’s family by “But you know you’re not very pretty or popular (like your sister)”. Asked to join a conversation, I would be put at ease with generic chat before I became the punchline to a joke. It was, quite literally, a family picnic staple to do this to me and select others among my cousins. We “odd ones” did not dare form alliances of our own. Conversations between us were treated as cause for punishment. One cousin and I were verbally insulted and physically punished in our early teens for quietly talking together, away from the rest of my father’s family, at a picnic. The abuse occurred in full view of the rest of the family, who said and did nothing.

Mangled Triangles

When sociologist Murray Bowen described a family triangle in the 1950s, he used the example of two parents and a child. In my childhood home, the triangle involved me, my sister, and our father. Any squabble between my sister and myself ended in my being punished by our father, while my sister watched; any misdeed of hers was mitigated by her telling our father something I had done. In many cases, I hadn’t done anything wrong. Yet if I denied the wrongdoing, I was punished for lying, and my sister was complimented for her honesty. If she physically abused me, she would accuse me of deserving or starting it, and I would be punished by my father after having been physically hurt by my sister.

Triangle image with points and angles labeled

Triangle

In all this, there was no room for my mother. My father and sister rarely mistreated anyone if my mother was present, and if I brought up my mother, I was told she would agree with them. It wasn’t until I was in my forties that I discovered how much of that was a lie.

The end result? I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. I have panic, anxiety, bouts of intense depression, and am occasionally suicidal. I see myself as the reason anything is “wrong”. I cannot wear certain types of shirts because they touch my body in ways that remind me of being physically harmed. The simple snapping of fingers can reduce me to angry fear. In short, I’m a survivor, with the scars to prove it.

In other ways, I thrive. I achieved high academic honors, ran my own business, enjoy a healthy marriage that has lasted over 20 years, and I sell some of the paintings resulting from my art therapy. I do not use alcohol or non-prescribed drugs, and I’m fairly stubborn even about those prescribed medications. I am not violent. Most of all, I am what I have chosen to be. There is, for a survivor of my family, no greater success than that.

 

Sunrise over ocean

Sunrise over ocean

Images courtesy CEMiller;  GNU Free Documentation License; and Florence Lilly

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